Oakland at Houston — 4:35 ET, Saturday
Reasons to Doubt the Season Statistics: Believe it or not, 36.5 points is the lowest over/under Las Vegas has given out all season. Derek Carr, Oakland's star quarterback, is out after breaking his leg. Left tackle Donald Penn, a Pro Bowler, hurt himself in Week 17 but returned to the game. Left guard Kelechi Osemele has been dealing with a variety of injuries and ailments over the second half of the season. So pretty much all of Oakland's offensive strengths are dinged up or sidelined. Oakland is hoping backup quarterback Matt McGloin can be cleared after a Week 17 injury, but if he isn't, the Raiders will turn to rookie Connor Cook.
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The Texans have been pretty inconsistent this year, but that mostly has depended on whether Houston's offense shows up to some extent, or not. The defense will come to play and should be as close to healthy as they've been in some time, with Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus both threatening the edges. Brock Osweiler was named the starting quarterback after Tom Savage's Week 17 concussion, but that doesn't actually change much about this offense, which has been bad no matter who plays.
When these teams played in Mexico City on Monday Night Football, it was probably Osweiler's best game of the season. Oakland won the game after a late Texans fourth-and-1 run deep in Oakland territory was ruled short of the sticks.
One Key Statistic: The field position game. Houston has finished dead-last in special teams DVOA two years in a row. You may remember that this time last year, Kansas City took the opening kickoff all the way to the house to jumpstart the whooping they put on Brian Hoyer and company. Even beyond big plays, the Texans' coverage team often struggles, and rookie returner Tyler Ervin has been brutal.
In a defensive slugfest where both teams will likely play conservatively, field position is going to matter a lot more than usual. Oakland finished 11th in special teams DVOA, so while this doesn't figure to be a blowout a la Kansas City last year, the Raiders still have a big edge on paper against the Texans.
My Read: I don't know that I'd say I "like" either team, but I think Houston head coach Bill O'Brien will keep his game plan a little more conservative, and to his benefit. This is going to be a contest where one turnover can change the entire scope of play; Cook often had trouble in college holding on to the ball. It feels odd to back the Texans against any team that has a track record of actually being good. But I'll hold my nose here.
Prediction: Texans 19, Raiders 13.
Miami at Pittsburgh — 1:00 ET, Sunday
Reasons to Doubt the Season Statistics:
Every year, Pittsburgh's number one foe is themselves. They seem to show up against good teams and come out flat against bad ones. At one point, we thought Miami was a bad team. And then they hosted Jay Ajayi's coming out party. Of course, in that game, Ben Roethlisberger got hurt—which has never happened before, and surely won't happen again!
As of publication, Miami's Ryan Tannehill hasn't been cleared for this game. If he is cleared, he probably will be playing hurt. While Miami's passing offense wasn't half-bad with Matt Moore against the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots (and the New York Jets, who are barely an NFL team), it hasn't been as good as it was during the middle of the season with Tannehill. Either way, Miami sports a run-heavy offense that tries to grind clock and gets big plays off play-action.
Given that Ajayi's first huge game came against a dinged-up defense, it is fairly important to note that Pittsburgh's front seven is relatively healthier. End Stephon Tuitt is expected to play. Linebacker Ryan Shazier should play. This should put more pressure on Miami's passing game, which will have to be better than it's been the last two games to stand a chance.
Every indicator for Pittsburgh is more positive than negative. The Steelers' passing offense has performed well when it hasn't had to play in a blizzard or stifling winds, or with Landry Jones at quarterback. Pittsburgh's defense has been getting much more pressure down the stretch as well, meaning it's harder to focus on their mediocre secondary in one-on-one matchups. And, oh yeah, Le'Veon Bell is pretty, pretty good, too.
One Key Statistic: Antonio Brown versus (fill in the blank). With No. 1 corner Byron Maxwell unable to run at full speed and likely out for this game, Brown should be able to take care of the rest of Miami's suspect secondary. Miami's only other qualifying cornerback in Sports Info Solution's metrics, Tony Lippett, finished 40th out of 75 qualifiers in success rate.
Second-round corner Xavien Howard finished with a dismal 47 percent success rate, and will likely be the other outside corner. Assuming the Steelers don't try to rehab Sammie Coates in a playoff game, they should have the advantage on almost every target.
My Read: Miami has the right game plan to win this game. Run the ball, play good defense, and burn the clock so that the Steelers only get so many opportunities to beat them. The problem is that with Tannehill questionable and the defensive back seven lacking talent, I don't have faith that they can execute said plan. Pittsburgh's natural inclination to play down to their opponents will help, but I can't see the Dolphins pulling this out.
Prediction: Pittsburgh 29, Miami 20.
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